China’s Ripening Taste for Cheese
By Betty Du
As China continues to globalise, the nation’s rich and long-standing food culture has been receptive to Western influences and many in the booming middle class have acquired a taste for non-traditional foods, such as cheese. At present, due to the widespread prevalence of Western fast food chains, cheese consumption is predominantly driven by the high demand for mass produced, processed cheese and thus, artisanal products have yet to enter the mainstream market. As urban centres grow increasingly international, the demand for Western foods is expected to rise and China’s cheese market is proving to be a fast expanding, and lucrative, industry.
Traditionally associated with the ‘barbaric’ nomads of the North, dairy was seen to exude a strong, unappealing muttony odour known as ‘shanwei’ (膻味) and was rarely consumed as part of the Chinese diet. An exception to this was limited to the south-eastern province of Yunnan where a firm, fresh cheese made from goats milk, known to locals as ‘rubing’ (乳饼) or ‘milk cakes’, was a priced local delicacy. Resembling paneer in both taste and texture, rubing was often served pan fried with vegetables or eaten plain with salt and chilli. Some have observed that cheese holds a similar flavour to the common street food of stinky tofu – a fermented beancurd with a smell which could only be described as a cocktail of rotting cheese, overflowing bin and an open sewer. Despite the popularity of this snack, and with Yunnan as the anomaly, China remained a dairy avoiding nation, and until recent years, many had little experience with milk-based products. However, as China’s unprecedented growth gives rise to the expansion of Western fast food chains such as Pizza Hut and McDonalds, an increasing number of people have sampled cheese and are growing accustomed to its taste, driving up demand around the country.
Throughout 2015, the volume of cheese sold within the country rose by twenty percent and the total estimated worth of the Chinese market was valued around US$540 million. Aided by the growing popularity of Western fast food establishments, the most recognisable form of cheese in China is processed – a food product in which a basic cheese is enriched with the addition of flavourings, colourings and nutrients. Marketed as a nutritious snack for children, processed cheese is now sold in supermarkets nationwide and international corporations- such as the American giant, Kraft Heinz Company- are cashing in on this growing demand. Although The Laughing Cow® and other mass produced products are recognisable household brands in urban centres, natural, European ‘Old World’ cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, have yet to enter the mainstream market.
With the expansion of China’s affluent middle class, many are welcoming foreign cheeseboards as a symbol of cultivated taste, embracing the Western custom of pairing cheese with fine wine. In the cosmopolitan centres of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, a gap in the market has been observed and many expats are hosting cheese and wine tasting evenings for the growing number of curious, middle class urbanites. China’s specialist food import market is expected to be worth around £39 billion by the end of this year and Britain is one of many countries hoping to benefit from this upcoming market. The FHC, a global food trade show in Shanghai which attracted over two thousand food and wine exporters from across sixty six countries in 2015, was attended by a group of British dairy businesses who hoped to promote Britain’s high quality produce to an eager audience. Although, in 2014, Chinese food safety inspectors were dissatisfied with the hygiene of a British dairy which led to the temporary ban of cheese imported from the UK, British goods are still widely valued in China. Following the baby milk scandal of 2008, the market remains distrustful of the domestic dairy industry and thus, the hegemony of foreign companies is likely to endure.
Nevertheless, leading the way for domestically produced, artisanal cheeses is Liu Yang, a Beijing-based cheesemaker who opened his shop, ‘Le Fromager de Pekin’, in 2009.After falling in love with cheese when studying in France, Liu was inspired to perfect the art of producing European-style cheeses back home. With a repertoire boasting sixteen styles, specialities include the ‘Beijing Grey’, a Camembert-like cheese with a black pepper crust, and the stronger, more pungent ‘Beijing Blue’. Liu notes that in the first couple years following the opening of his business, over ninety percent of his customers were Western expats. Nowadays, his customer base is split half and half between foreigners and Chinese locals, and this ratio will undoubtedly continue to adjust as the Chinese nation becomes increasingly familiarised with Old World cheeses. The story of China’s cheese market is likely to develop into a success story like that of red wine. Despite its slow start in the market, red wine was marketed as a symbol of modern sophistication and in 2013, China overtook France as the world’s largest consumer of the beverage. The coffee and chocolate markets also underwent a similar process, and all three examples foreshadow the potential for artisanal cheeses within the Chinese market.
As the urban population are further exposed to Western food habits, either from time spent abroad or widespread advertising campaigns, natural cheeses will inevitably filter into mainstream tastes and become a product which is widely accessible, losing its label as a foreign novelty. The sheer enormity of the Chinese audience offers tremendous potential for foreign and domestic companies alike; therefore, one should take a keen interest in China’s ripening taste for cheese.
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